It now seems like a lifetime ago since we were all attending Conferences together in person, to share invaluable knowledge and lessons learned in a group setting. One of the last gatherings I spoke at in person was at the 2020 Alberta Industrial Fire and Emergency Management Association (AIFEMA) Conference in Edmonton. What a fabulous event it was! In retrospect, it also ended up being one of the last conferences to be held in Canada, as the coronavirus shutdown orders quickly started spreading across the country like wildfire. But, unlike wildfire, this deadly threat is an invisible one, which makes it that much more challenging to respond to and recover from. It also cannot be contained, and we are now realizing it will continue to burn through our communities for many more months to come.
As such, communities and companies across Canada should start planning now, not only for how they will navigate through the pandemic waves to ‘rebuild’, but how they can also use this opportunity to build back better and become more resilient from this or any other future crisis as a result.
For the past 18 years, I’ve worked with governments, communities and companies to help them plan for a potential serious global pandemic. Unfortunately, what we’ve been advising people to plan for since SARS is now upon us, at a very escalated scale, and is dwarfing our SARS and H1N1 experiences. By now, we are all well aware that this pandemic will challenge us for months, not weeks, with the likely potential of additional waves hitting us before a vaccine may be distributed or herd immunity is achieved and COVID-19 is considered eradicated. In the meantime, there are a number of things we can do as first and second responders to ensure we are ‘ahead of the curve’ before the next wave or health emergency comes our way.
When something bad happens, you have three choices – you can let it define you, destroy you, or strengthen you. How do you want your company/organization to be seen during and after the crisis? After this is over, what will people think about your response?
Flattening the Curve
To ensure we continue to ‘flatten the curve’ and keep it that way throughout the height and length of this pandemic, we must continue to remind and encourage all of our employees and clients to follow the proper hygiene rules and etiquette to avoid continued spread (washing hands, covering your cough, 6-foot/2-metre social distancing, wearing a mask, adopting enhanced cleaning procedures, etc.) We all now know that the most effective way to help stop the spread of this virus and not become infected ourselves is to wash our hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.
To help promote and enforce proper handwashing, where possible, landlords and building owners should be encouraged (if not ordered) to ensure they have WARM water coming out of the bathroom faucets, not cold water only, which is a current common practice in many public spaces and workplaces, which only discourages people from taking the proper time to wash properly and effectively, which in turn means the spread within your workplaces or our public spaces could continue. Examine additional measures to enhance the safety and security of your bathroom facilities, and consider installing hand sanitizer stations in your shared work environments where access to soap and water is not available or accessible. Enhanced cleaning procedures should also be considered throughout the workplace, specifically to high-touch surfaces in high-traffic areas.
Working through the Waves
As we saw during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic, the second wave was worse than the first. Hopefully, we can avoid a third wave, but it will really depend on how well social distancing and other measures can be followed throughout the pandemic to prevent additional community spread and outbreaks. As such, it’s imperative that we think of ways to help promote this within our communities and organizations throughout the short and long term.
One day, this pandemic will be eradicated or become part of ‘regular’ society and much less dangerous that it is now. While our ultimate goal is to ultimately extinguish this pandemic fire for good, it’s also important for us to use this experience to prepare us for the next health emergency we may face. While we hopefully won’t see another pandemic of this scale or magnitude within our lifetime, we will most definitely experience other infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics. If anything, I predict we should all be planning for a potential explosion of measles outbreaks once the pandemic is over, due to the already growing anti-vaccination movement pre-pandemic, combined with those who are choosing not to vaccinate their children during the pandemic. We should all be ready if and when that happens. We now have no excuse.
Assessing and Mitigating the Risk
Now is the time to take a good hard look at what the risks are in your current working environment. Are there additional measures you can implement, not only during the pandemic, but for the longer term? Complete a ‘pandemic risk assessment’ to see what steps can be taken to mitigate future infectious disease outbreaks within your community or your organization.
Psychological First Aid
While our priority as first and second responders focuses on physical life safety and operational response and recovery, it’s also extremely important to emphasize and promote psychological first aid and mental health awareness throughout this long-term health emergency. This pandemic will have, and is already having, numerous psychological impacts and effects, on our community members and our critical employees. Be sure to provide them with links to up-to-date information and resources from trusted sources on managing fatigue, overload, isolation and the additional emotional stress of the ongoing pandemic and all of its cascading effects throughout the short and long term.
As the pandemic progresses and our communities continue to be impacted financially, physically and emotionally, I predict workplace violence issues will only intensify throughout and after COVID-19 is eradicated. In the meantime, all workplaces should be developing solid workplace violence/active shooter plans, training sessions and exercises to ensure they will be able to deal with these effectively if they should occur, or potentially prevent them from happening at all.
Recovery Plans and Public/Private Partnerships
This pandemic will change the fire industry forever (and all industries, really). As such, apart from responding to the current & rapidly-evolving environment day-by-day (which of course is our main priority right now), we must also start proactively thinking ahead & planning for what will be the ‘new normal’ for our services and our communities once we are on the long road to recovery.
Now, more than ever, we must encourage and promote collaboration and innovation within our industry, including looking at empowering our citizens, volunteers and ‘everyday heroes’ to step up and help provide critical support if or when they are needed. Now is the time to consider whether or not it’s feasible to call back retirees, train local volunteers, etc to replace your ill or absent essential workers. I call this adding another ‘P’ to the whole Public/Private Partnerships concept: People.
Business as Unusual and Building Back Better
Although dealing with the pandemic is our primary focus right now, it’s also important for us all to plan and prepare for other, more typical disasters, we may face over the coming months. For example, flood, forest fire, tornado and hurricane seasons are just around the corner, and if we haven’t already, we should be re-thinking how we will be able to respond effectively while continuing to maintain our critical operations in a pandemic environment, with possible reduced levels of critical staff and additional social distancing measures and orders in place over the next several months, if not years.
To ensure we are ahead of the ‘continuity curve’ and do not slow down the recovery process, now is the time to start re-evaluating all of our current business continuity, emergency/crisis management and crisis communications plans with a ‘pandemic lens’. Consider how much of your core business you can perform online or remotely that hasn’t already been implemented. Do you have the proper bandwidth to support this over the coming weeks and months? Plan for multiple intermittent failures of our critical infrastructure over the next several months, including virtual meeting platforms, access to internet, cell networks, power, etc. Do you have the appropriate back-ups in place and tested if or when this happens?
Spammers and Scammers
While this pandemic is bringing out many helpers and ‘disaster heroes’ of all kinds, it is also unfortunately bringing out some ‘disaster villains’ as well. For example, as this is prime time for cyber attacks, which I’m sure your IT folks are already aware of and planning for, it’s a good idea to take this time to remind ALL your staff to be extra-vigilant and aware throughout this vulnerable period. It’s also important to be mindful of and remind employees to be aware of the many scams out there (door-to-door fake COVID-19 tests, miracle cures, etc.).
The New Normal
Finally, while it may seem too early for this, long before COVID-19 is officially declared eradicated, businesses will have to start re-evaluating not only how they run their business in the coming ‘new normal’, but also how their offices/workspaces are designed. For example, while many businesses have adopted and encouraged ‘open/shared workspace’ concepts over the past few years, this only encourages and speeds up the spread of infectious diseases within such work environments. I predict many who must work in office environments vs. remotely will have to go back to the ‘old school’ concept of having individual enclosed offices and NOT promoting the sharing of workspaces and tools, keeping in mind the 6-foot social distancing rule or ‘tactical spacing guideline’ for those with a military background. Long after this pandemic is over and we (hopefully) have a vaccine distributed, communities and businesses must look at how they may be able to prevent rapid spread of another infectious disease localized outbreak, epidemic or pandemic in the future.
In the end, I believe we will take this pandemic as an opportunity to ‘build back better’ and stronger, as we slowly and safely build back to a better new normal.
Our team of professionals at QM Environmental offers you the following services to ensure the continuity of your business: Emergency Response Plan Development, Plan Maintenance and Training / Exercises.
Contact us for more information
About the Author:
SUZANNE BERNIER, CEM, CBCP, MBCI, CMCP
Senior Emergency Management Specialist, QM Environmental
- Named ‘Best in Crisis Management Services – Canada’ by the 2021 Global Business Excellence Awards
- Named ‘Continuity & Resilience Consultant of the Year – North America by the Business Continuity Institute (BCI) in 2016
A former journalist and government press secretary, Suzanne is now an international, multi-certified, award-winning crisis management consultant, trainer, speaker and author, who has helped governments, communities and companies plan for, respond to, and recover from disasters for over twenty years.
Throughout her career, Suzanne has been professionally and/or personally involved in helping communities plan, respond, rebuild or recover from numerous crises, including the 9/11 terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 pandemic, the 2003 Northeast Blackout, and the 1998 “Ice Storm of the Century” in Eastern Canada.
In 2006, she led the development of Ontario’s first recognized Pandemic Plan for the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board and led their internal response to the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic. Following her work on infectious disease planning in Canada, she was commissioned by the United Nations Headquarters in 2008 to design and deliver their first-ever Pandemic Tabletop Exercise and Pandemic Action Plan.